James Alan Fox has an editorial up at USA Today this week on the subject of trying minors as adults in criminal court. It was spurred by the high profile case of 12-year-old Morgan Geyser and 13-year-old Anissa Weier who nearly killed their young classmate in Wisconsin during what’s come to be known as the Slender Man attacks. As things stand right now the two girls will be tried as adults for the horrific stabbings and could face sentences up to life in prison.

The author finds this system to be out of synch with the realities of dealing with children.

There are many drawbacks to trying kids as adults, and few advantages. The juvenile justice system is predicated on the principle of rehabilitation, for which youngsters have greater capacity than their older counterparts. By contrast, criminal courts are far more punitive and far less concerned with what might be in the best interests of a young defendant. Scientific studies have demonstrated that youngsters prosecuted and punished as adults recidivate at a higher rate than those adjudicated in the juvenile justice system for similar offenses.

If juvenile court punishments are insufficient to achieve justice, then they should be lengthened. But pretending that teens are just smaller versions of adults runs contrary to what we know about neurological and social development. Committing a crime ordered by some mythical miscreant reflects the kind of immature thinking that is typical of youngsters. Although they may offend like adults, they reason like children.

Fox goes on to point out all sorts of things about how the minds of children operate differently than those of adults. These include referring to some kids as “temporary sociopaths” who cognitively know about the risks and consequences for their actions, but don’t truly understand them, living as they do in a world of very short term thinking. He also argues that youths have limited empathy for others, and as such apparently shouldn’t be held to adult standards of conduct.

Honestly, I couldn’t argue from an educated position on either of those last two points. I’ve certainly run into more than a few teenagers who I would characterize as sociopaths and the cruelty of small children is well known. But when it comes to the serious matter of law enforcement, none of these arguments answer either of two fundamental questions.

First, at what age should the legal system determine that the youth has made the magical transformation into an adult and be held responsible? Not all kids mature mentally or emotionally at the same rate, and I’m pretty sure environment can play a big role in that process. We have enough trouble with the rest of our laws when it comes to minimum ages for anything. A 17 year old is mature enough to put on a uniform and enter basic training to go kill the enemy in a war, yet he or she is still four years too young to purchase a six pack of beer at the mini-mart. The age at which one can consent to sexual intercourse or marriage varies rather wildly across the states. You can vote at 18 (and some want it to be lower than that) to elect the leader of the free world but you can’t get into the comedy club on Friday night because they serve liquor there.

Second, if we’re not going to assign some age figure set in stone, how do we determine which children are acting as adults? Some kids present more sympathetic figures, and you might find the Slender Man girls falling into that category. But when you see a fifteen year old who joined a gang in Camden at the age of 12 and has built up an impressive rap sheet before finally shooting somebody, it’s a bit harder to look at him as a misguided youth. It’s easy to say that all the kids in those situations were let down by the parents and allowed to fall into the wrong track in life, but is that an excuse?

It just seems to me that judges and prosecutors need to have the ability to evaluate each suspect individually and use the best judgement they can muster to determine if they are dealing with a miniature version of an adult with malice in their heart or a truly lost, bewildered child. It’s not a perfect system and bad judges will handle some of the cases improperly, but it’s still better than some magical age figure which gets applied across the nation. Either way, simply saying that everyone under “x” years of age should be exempt from criminal prosecution as an adult is not the way to handle this.